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Do referendums enhance or threaten democracy?

Essay 2003 16 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Europäische Union


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Representative democracy and the rise of referendums

3. Evaluating the impact of referendums
3.1 Chances of referendums
3.1.1 Maximizing participation
3.1.2 Separating issues
3.2 Dangers of referendums
3.2.1 Lacking knowledge of voters
3.2.2 Suppressing minorities
3.2.3 Weakening the government
3.2.4 Manipulating the masses

4. Conclusion

5. Referendums on Europe


Going back to Athens?

The growing use of referendums and their impact on democracy.

1. Introduction

In some countries, the Euro has been established without consulting the citizens. Discussions on whether this has been a fair and fully legal step made by elected representatives in a democracy or whether people should have been asked before passing such a major reform are ongoing.

The convent has come up with a first proposal for a European Constitution. While several countries are preparing their referendums on it, Germany’s chancellor Gerhard Schröder simply stated, he is against a referendum – no reasons given.

Switzerland uses referendums as a regular instrument to let people decide about single political issues. Countries as Sweden and Denmark use them at least once in a while. Others, such as Germany, have never had a referendum in their history.

Although these differences between nation states are obvious, there has been a revival of the idea of referendums as an instrument of direct democracy in the last decades. In some states used, in others only discussed, referendums are a topic again. This essay analyses the question whether referendums enhance or threaten democracy by taking a closer look at the pro and contra arguments used in the literature, essays and newspaper articles through which sociologists fight their battle about the subject.

After pointing out some of the reasons for the current rise of referendums in general (2), chapter 3 will deal with the chances (3.1) and dangers (3.2) of referendums. This analysis will lead to a conclusion and judgement of referendums (4). In chapter 5, a short outlook will be given on the function of referendums in the ever closer European Union.

2. Representative democracy and the rise of referendums

While democracy in its original sense meant direct democracy, a democracy in which every member of the society would vote on every single issue the state is concerned with, today, direct democracy as a sole system of decision-making is not found in any developed state anymore. Nowadays democracy almost exclusively means representative democracy, with the necessity of an elitist character.[1] The reason why this development happened in the first place is quite simple: society became too complex, nation-states too big. Modern ideas of democracy differ a lot from the antique idea of democracy because they have to deal with large political entities – like the one of the nation-state.[2] Direct democracy only works

“for polities so small that all citizens can meet face-to-face in one place at one time. Even more important, the dream can be made flesh only in communities in which all citizens can spend all their time on political decisions […]”[3]

Or, as Sartori puts it:

“[…T]he greater the number of people involved, the less effective is their participation […]. Thus, when vast territories and entire nations are involved, direct democracy becomes an unusable formula.”[4]

Trying to explain the situation on a theoretical base, the systems theory becomes handy. The theory assumes that society is constructed as one big system in which several subsystems work together. As media or education, politics are one of these subsystems. Every single one of them follows specific goals and has to fulfil a function for society. The main idea behind the functional differentiation is to reduce the complexity of society and make it easier to understand. The bigger a system gets, the more important the differentiation and the communication between subsystems gets as well. Since subsystems are dependent on one another and do not work in a hierarchy but on an equality base, every member of one system takes part in the others as an audience as well. Translating these rather theoretical thoughts into practicality, politics are a subsystem serving society with the function of making decisions for everybody – decisions on very complex topics. While teachers are members of the educational and journalists of the media subsystem, their audience role of the subsystem of politics is the one of electors. With a growing territory and number of people as well as an ever more complex society, subsystems get more and more important. Only they can specialise in their respective field and therefore make better because more competent decisions. The idea of representative democracy rose because parliament has fewer members than the whole state and can therefore interact and communicate much easier.[5] Representative democracy has been accepted by the people although they were not consulted about every single topic any more because the representatives were “elected to govern and base their decisions on citizen feedback to their policy proposals.”[6] Nevertheless, the use of referendums increased over the last few decades – interestingly enough as a counter-development to the decreasing trust in politicians and their ability to do their job. Another reason for more and more referendums is the “transfer of national powers to European organisations”[7] that has to be legitimised by the people. Craig/Kreppel/Kane identify three different reasons for the rising use of referendums:

1. Cognitive mobilization. With better education systems, people know more and more about politics and the belief that they can be trusted in their ability to make decisions.
2. Disaffection: As pointed out above, the people do not trust the government and the politicians that much any more; referendums therefore shall protect the people from politics and safeguards their interests.
3. Faux populism: Interests groups have discovered a new possibility to access politics and use the referendums as a tool.[8]

Legislative referendums in which politics let people vote for or against their decisions and laws would underline the cognitive mobilization theory while initiative referendums are often the outcome of faux populism in which interest groups try to set the agenda of politics and press for a vote on some single issue. Although the use of referendums is increasing, there is no sight of them being an alternative for representative democracy. They are more of a supplement that is embedded into the idea of it.


[1] Setälä, 1999, 62

[2] Setälä, 1999, 62

[3] Butler/Ranney, 1994, 13: e.g. in ancient Greece, where slaves were working, so that the (male) citizens could spend all their time discussing politics.

[4] Sartori, 1987, 283

[5] Setälä, 1999, 19

[6] Zimmermann, 2001, ix

[7] Setälä, 1999, 1

[8] Craig/Kreppel/Kane, 2001, 25


ISBN (eBook)
450 KB
Institution / Hochschule
University of Bath – European Studies and Modern Languages



Titel: Do referendums enhance or threaten democracy?